These Radical Ideas Show How Nature Can Inform Sustainable Design

The latest Biomimicry Global Design Challenge winners take their inspiration from the original innovation master.

Before humans ever conceived of sustainable design, nature was doing a good job. Plants and animals have evolved to use energy efficiently, to be multi-functional yet balanced, and to use information to carry out living processes. With this in mind, the Biomimicry Institute challenges designers to mine nature for new ideas, as you can see from its 2016 Biomimicry Global Design Challenge.


“Nature has done 3.8 billion years of R&D already, so looking at nature for inspiration is a no-brainer,” says Jacob Russo, co-creator of the Nexloop rain harvesting concept, one of the winners. The device, designed to be retrofitted to a building facade or placed within a window, like an air conditioner, captures water and automatically uses it to irrigate plants inside the home.

Its biomimicry comes from the surfaces that draw in the water and then absorb it. On the vertical, these are hydrophobic–like lotus leaves–funneling water downwards. On the horizontal, the surface is hydrophilic–like an ice plant–drawing water in. The idea is that you could install it and leave it, never having to draw on the municipal water system again.

“We’re interested in this being a closed-loop passive system. You wouldn’t need pumps, because it will use capillary action as a means of water transportation,” says Russo, a graduate from Carnegie Mellon’s architecture program. “Allowing the building facade to be a medium allows this to be larger-scale infrastructure that’s part of a food-water nexus.”

This year’s challenge was all about food. Other ideas include a social network for food-buying that was inspired by ants (see the video below) and a concept restaurant from the U.K. that was inspired by how “mycorrhizal fungi help exchange carbon, nutrients, and water between plants.”

Megan Schuknecht, director of design challenges at the institute, says biomimetic design is more difficult than it looks. Ideally, the teams should define problems first and then scan nature for ideas, rather than the other way round. The principles of efficiency and nature’s balance are guides for the teams to work off, she says.


The 10 winning entries, including three student winners, receive cash prizes, with the seven “open category” teams being invited to the institute’s new accelerator program. The winner of that stage, announced this October, will get the $100,000 Ray C. Anderson Foundation Ray of Hope Prize, named after the pioneering founder of the Interface carpet company.

See more of the winners here.

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About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.